A black widow called. She wants her turnip back.

By Shenrich91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Shenrich91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I had originally planned to talk about the positive experience I had at an organic farm gleaning vegetables for DC Central Kitchen. Instead, I was inspired to write about the black widow spider because of all the questions I’ve been asked about the one I encountered at the farm. (I will get back to writing about the gleaning experience later because it’s important.) But first, let me put on my cape and save some hypothetical lives.

It was a chilly, rainy, fall morning on a farm out on the Eastern Shore. Armed with yellow rubber kitchen gloves, I began yanking up turnips from their neat little rows. Only ten minutes into the work, I found the nest. This turnip was different than the others. The ground released it easily. My first clue. Clue two: It was hollow.  Clue three: There was a bundle of white threads in the ground where the turnip had been. So where was the spider?

I then looked at the other end of the turnip in my hand and there she was. Perfectly identifiable. A sleepy black widow. The good thing about these venomous spiders is that they aren’t particularly aggressive. They don’t try to run, and they won’t bite unless they feel attacked. As National Geographic puts it, they “bite only in self-defense, such as when someone accidentally sits on them.” So try not to sit on one.

I stooped there for a minute trying to figure out what to do. On the one hand, I’m not particularly fond of any spider and here I was hanging out with a poisonous one. So I should probably kill it. On the other hand, spiders are just soooo good for the environment. I let someone else decide since I was too paralyzed by my fear to make a decision. (She squashed it with her boot. It was the right thing to do.)

The woman helping me pick turnips had no idea what we were looking at. She commented that I was a spider guru, implying I had an extensive knowledge of these things. The truth is the widow is the first and only spider I learned to identify by name as a child. I was surprised that she had no idea what it was. “Is it poisonous? If someone got bit by one, should they call their doctor?” Um, yes. The bite can make any human sick, and although rare, can be fatal to young children, the elderly, or anyone with weakened immune systems.

When I pointed out the spider to the farm head, she said casually that the pickers had been seeing many of them around the farm this year. I decided to see if the increased numbers were unique to that farm. Black widow populations have shown several booms across the U.S. in recent years. Kansas reported an increase in 2013 and New York City in 2012. Scientists attribute the larger populations to milder winters and warmer summers. Another thing to look forward to with a warmer planet.

Some general things to know:

1. The female spiders are medium to smallish and are black with a red hourglass on the back (see pic). The males, which don’t have the vicious bite the females do, are brown.

2. They like dark places outside like woodpiles, patio furniture, and clutter lying around the yard. I heard of a woman getting bit once by one hiding in a cemetery vase. Careful where you put your digits.

3. When it gets cold outside, they may seek shelter indoors in attics, basements, garages, etc. We had one camping in our heater once.

4. When gardening or working around the yard or in dark spaces, wear gloves and pay attention. If you keep shoes in the garage, shine a flashlight in them before putting them on your feet.

5. If you get bit by a black widow or any spider, try to save the spider in a jar. Its identity will help you get the right treatment.

Find information on what to do if you or someone you know gets bit by a black widow spider. Whether or not you fall into one of the categories I mentioned above, it’s always best to be safe and seek medical attention immediately. Let the doctor decide if you need treatment.

Okay, time to remove this cape and shower the creepy crawlies off me.

Do birds mourn?


Photo by CGIOS

Part of good gardening, and yard work, is respecting the life that uses the space. The yard work that I came home to today, which we so desperately needed due to the invasive vines that had taken over, was the exact opposite of respectful. The skeletal hedges in this photo illustrate this mean, lazy, and expensive work. People swooped in and hacked everything to pieces as fast as they could in order to make a buck. Respect wasn’t even shown for the plant life. The roots to the invasive vines are still there (I can see them) and trimmings were left laying on the ivy beds.

The bird sitting on the gate is a catbird. He used to care for a nest with babies. Now, he keeps fluttering around the patio and landing in that same spot to look over where the nest used to be. Whether my roommate had let the workers know the nest was there or not, they should have seen it and been more careful.

I know catbirds aren’t everyone’s favorite. They are territorial and sometimes attack other birds. But I’ve been watching this one, and all he cared about was that nest. I liked sitting on the patio and listening to him sing and watching him fly in and out of the hedge working on his family. He often woke me up at 3 and 4am performing his best imitation of a mockingbird. I’m sure I’m so upset because I will miss him if he decides to move on.

And I’m sure he will because our yard is no longer suitable for hiding nests. Nor is it clear if his partner survived the “attack” or is nearby. He looks lost and I wonder what that means. The cycle of life for us doesn’t seem so much a system or pattern, because we live so long and we have our brains to keep us company. Obviously, humans have more to grieve when a loved one is lost. But I wonder with birds (and animals in general), when they lose a loved one, is it a break in their life cycle pattern? When the pattern of a catbird calls for 2 to 3 nests per season and one suddenly disappears, how long before the bird is able to move on and start the next nest? Is it too confusing and therefore changes their whole life game? Or do they instinctively forget and just start over? This bird looks more confused than forgetful.

And do birds mourn? I looked this up. Apparently some birds, like the western scrub jay, do. There is evidence that bigger-brained animals like the elephant and horse also exhibit signs of grieving. Anthropologist Barbara King studied animal grieving behavior for two years and wrote a book about it.

I hope this little catbird, when he’s feeling better, will stick around and try again, maybe in a neighbor’s hedge. I never thought I’d ever hear myself say, “I will miss my 3am wake-up call.”

P.S. The spider I wrote about yesterday is also gone. I’m eating consolation ice cream and trying to decide how I feel about that.

An Alley Story: Vertical Gardens

Photo by CGIOS

We are not all perfect and some of us have vertical gardens as evidence. I’m intrigued by one that sits behind a neighbor’s garage in the alley behind my residence. The idea is fascinating: Take an old slatted wooden pallet, chop up some flat lumber to make mini shelving, place old soup cans full of plants (or dirt and seeds if you’re a start-from-scratch type) on the shelves, watch life happen. Or watch the shelves fall out and the squirrels dig out the faux pots. In this neighbor’s defense, she works endlessly in her tiny backyard gardens and has some incredible color going. The vertical garden appears to be a forgotten whim, and I can’t blame her given the beauty of the rest of her property.

The above vertical garden perhaps isn’t the most attractive example, but the creative possibilities for such gardens are virtually endless. What’s neat about these gardens is that they take advantage of the lack of yard space while allowing gardeners to also show their inner architects. ‘Artists’ might be a more appropriate term than architect, but aren’t all gardeners artists in one way or another? Painting with flowers and plants?

I’d love to say that I am also working on a vertical garden, but I’m not. I’m barely growing spearmint. People feel the need to tell me constantly that spearmint is fool proof. Found the fool. To illustrate just how green my thumbs are not, real gardeners can sniff me out. A woman at a farmers market in West Virginia actually rescinded her offer to let me buy a pot of her herbs. She offered me a tiny pot of sage instead, because “it is impossible to kill sage.” While I like proving people wrong, she was right. That remains the only plant success story I’ve ever had. I ate a lot of butternut squash ravioli in butter and sage sauce that fall. This butternut squash soup with sage was also a hit.

It’s a little early to be thinking about butternut squash in D.C. so let’s get back to vertical gardens.

Check out some great sites for ideas to build your own vertical gardens:

  • Here is a more successful version of the DIY recycled pallet vertical garden (like the one in my alley).
  • Marcelle Friedman’s list of “39 Insanely Cool Vertical Gardens” on Buzzfeed would take more than a stepladder and an apartment balcony to create, but boy it’s fun to drool over the possibilities.
  • If you would rather have insanely precise instructions than wing it and you’re good with tools, try making a vertical garden like this one demonstrated by Saul from Home Depot.

If you’ve created one yourself, please share pics! If my spearmint seedlings ever decide to have a little faith in me, I might try to build one, too.